Vice presidential debates usually aren't very significant, but Thursday night in St. Louis, Americans will see perhaps the most important debate of this election. McCain's chances at victory will depend heavily upon Gov. Sarah Palin's performance against Sen. Joe Biden, and many Americans will be tuning in for it.
Sarah Palin came out strong a few weeks ago at the GOP Convention, giving a speech that mobilized the conservatives in the party and gave McCain a big surge in the polls. In an ABC poll, 58 percent of Americans said they had a favorable impression of the vice presidential candidate, while 28 percent said they had a negative impression. Two weeks later, though, her numbers dropped: 38 percent said they have a negative impression of Palin, while only 52 percent had a positive impression. This drop in support is mainly due to the governor's questionable absence from the media spotlight and her failure to get McCain's message across when she does get a taste of it (i.e., the awful Katie Couric interview). She has motivated the GOP's activist core, causing numbers for phone banks and door-to-door volunteers to triple in the last three weeks, but she still has a lot to make up for.
Not only does Palin have to clean up her image, but she also has to do it against one of the most talented politicians in America. Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, so there is no doubt about the amount of experience he has. He has also run a presidential campaign before, so he knows the ropes when it comes to a national debate. He is renowned for his communication skills, and he also has the advantage of being well known and being well defined in his issues.
Biden does have to be careful, though. He cannot appear to be degrading or condescending in any way, especially when going up against a woman. Also, despite her recent, unscripted mistakes, Palin has been known to be a fine debater, finding success in most campaigns she has run in. And, of course, the McCain campaign will have her as prepared as possible, fixing up the mistakes she has made in the past few weeks and those that she is likely to make in the future. A lot of her mistakes have not been the fault of her speaking skills, but rather her lack of a defined set of views. She also has not had a firm grasp of what McCain's positions are, mainly because they are not always the same as hers. If she can get these down, then she has the potential to do OK in this debate and in the rest of the campaign.
Palin does not have to be spectacular Thursday night, but she does need to rise above America's expectations in order to sustain support from the GOP. She was chosen to get the right-wingers motivated, and if she cannot establish a firm base of credibility, McCain will have a hard time pulling through.